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'Gosford Park'

Director turns his lens on another whirling ensemble in 'Gosford Park'

Friday, January 11, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" plays like an episode of "Upstairs Downstairs" that morphs into an Agatha Christie mystery.

'Gosford Park'

RATING: R for brief violence and strong language

PLAYERS: Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson

DIRECTOR: Robert Altman

WEB SITE: www.gosfordpark



It's also the kind of movie Altman does best: an examination of a large, disparate group of people who come together, willingly or not, in one place -- which could be anything from a marriage ceremony ("A Wedding") to a city-as-subculture ("Nashville") to a traveling hospital in a country at war ("M*A*S*H").

The interactions of the characters, a series of small stories taking place within the overall setting, form the meat of these movies. The plot, if there is one, remains secondary.

"Gosford Park" takes place in 1932 at the country estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), who is hosting a shooting party of a dozen or so relatives and acquaintances. Each brings his or her own servant, who blend into the household staff.

We see everything from the point of view of the servants, who are privy to the secrets of their employers and share the gossip among themselves.

Sir William's wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is quite a bit younger. Their daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), has a secret that the supposedly Hon. Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) threatens to reveal unless she helps influence Sir William to give him a desperately needed job. Freddie married his wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley), because he mistakenly thought she was rich.

Meanwhile, Isobel is being courted by Lord Rupert (Laurence Fox), who also has no money. Even Lady Sylvia's aunt, the imperious Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), depends on Sir William's largesse -- and resents it.

About the only members of the party who are not grasping at each other are the composer and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam, playing the one character in the film who was a real person) and his guest, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), an American Jew who produces Charlie Chan movies in Hollywood. He might as well have come from Mars.

But that's just it. Weissman represents the changing world, the rise of the vulgarians from across the pond who would help England defeat Hitler a decade later. The indolence and failing finances of the upper crust foreshadow the impending doom of their way of life.

In a way, the smooth operation of the social order seems to depend chiefly on the servants. According to custom, the visiting maids and valets are called by their employers' names. The house staff observes its own hierarchy, with the butler Jennings (Alan Bates) at the top followed closely by the housekeeper (Helen Mirren), the cook (Eileen Atkins) and the head housemaid (Emily Watson).

The servants have their secrets, too. By film's end, the skeletons in both the upstairs and downstairs closets are revealed. A murder that occurs well into the film helps unlock some of the biggest ones.

But whodunit isn't as important as why -- pay attention or you may still be confused by film's end.

The necessities of storytelling have always been Altman's Achilles heel. He excels at creating the ambiance of a place, at stirring the broth of a subculture and isolating its essence. No one is better at intermingling a group of people and leading us through the overlapping dialogue and situations.

But he usually comes a cropper when he has to find a conclusion to his stories. In his most recent film, "Dr. T and the Women," he literally blew off the rest of the movie by sending the title character off in a tornado to his own private Oz.

"Gosford Park" gets us so involved in the social structure of the household and the characters who inhabit it that the murder mystery almost seems like an intrusion. The movie also has so many characters that we may get lost in the swirl.

But the interplay between the masters and the servants (and among them, for that matter), and the rigorous re-creation of the worlds they inhabit -- from the upstairs drawing rooms to the rabbit warren of workrooms and corridors beneath -- is tailor-made for Altman, a sly sociological busybody poking around with his inquisitive, eavesdropping lens.

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